Just had to write this one down to get it out of my head, it was getting in the way of working on other stories. No idea where it came from or why it wants to be written. I’ve styled it after 1930s - 1940s ‘Spicy Romance’ pulp stories, and it just fits in that format at just about 6K words. There is no graphic sex in this story line. Special thanks to Sbrooks and Crkcppr for editing and beta reading it for me. Any remaining errors are entirely mine -- probably added after their assistance. And thanks to everyone for the encouragement and support
24 December 1938
Ella hitched her dark wool pants up as she slid down the wooded hill toward the two room cabin in the holler, clutching the glass bottle to herself carefully. The pants – and the dark wool shirt as well - were actually her older brother’s. The wool cap covering her bright red hair was her uncle’s. She’d needed dark thick clothes to move through the woods on the chilly December night. He’d said if they burned down Widow Amos’ house, she’d leave the county with her son. One less hated Amos to deal with. The Simms-Amos feud has gone on so long nobody even remembered how it started, although rumor was that it had started over a jilted bride. Or maybe a stolen pig – Uncle Enos said that one was pretty much the same as the other. Maybe it didn’t matter at all. The cold of the Appalachian mountains seemed to breed feuds out of the thin, misty air. Ella had been thrilled to be picked to be the one to do the deed. All the men of the clan would make sure they were highly visible in the only Saloon in the county – the Green Room, run by old Nat Green and his wife Mabel. Nobody would ever suspect a girl of burning the place down. According to Uncle Enos, Widow Amos and her son were off visiting family two counties over for Christmas.
She moved silently closer. Uncle Enos had picked her because she was the best at everything. Best runner, best swimmer, best at climbing. And she was tough, hard. Her Gramma said Ella had a mean streak - that she’d “die in the arms of the Devil.”
She crept closer yet and watched for a long bit. She reflected that it was kind of a pity that the bookish son, Jack, was one of the hated Amos clan. He’d never started any trouble and was always kind of nice, at least to her. He was even cute in a quiet withdrawn manner. Back when she was first in school she’d even played with him – they’d even pretended to be boyfriend and girlfriend in third grade. That’d gotten her ass beaten when her Father heard about it, and she had stayed clear of Jack ever since. She’d noticed that he’d gotten tall and lanky in the last year or so.
Still nothing. In the distance she could hear singing. Carols of course, Christmas Eve.
She set the bottle down, pulled the stopper and tied the oily rag from her belt around the neck, tucking one end inside the bottle with shaking hands. She fumbled a Lucifer out of one pants pocket and a flat dry slate out of the other. She picked up the bottle and edged a little closer. Her uncle had given her clear instructions on how to do this. The bottle had to hit on the front porch, under the roof overhang, that way the fire would catch on the bottom and the top of the house, making it burn faster and more complete.
The Lucifer caught on the first strike.
Ella felt like she was watching someone else light the rag and hurl the bottle to burst perfectly, right at the front door.
She was supposed to run immediately, but for a long moment she just stood rooted as the fire caught, the bright orange flames catching quickly to the roof and then leapt toward the sky. She couldn’t seem to walk away – the warmth of the fire on her face made her close her eyes in pleasure for a while – it was a chilly night after all. The fire leapt higher and higher.
Somewhere in the crackling, she heard something fall. A beam maybe? Still it broke the spell and she turned to walk away.
A loud “Crack’’ sound. Then a second. A third.
Ella turned back around. The door to the cabin burst outward, and a blackened figure stumbled out coughing from a flaming doorway, clutching a book.
Ella gasped. Nobody was supposed to be home. Uncle Enos had sworn they were gone.
The figure looked up at her gasp. Jack’s face was pale in the light, even silhouetted against the fire she could see that. His face was twisted in pain.
His streaming eyes fixed on her as he hacked smoke out of his lungs. For a long moment she stared back at him, then turned and scampered up the hillside as if the Devil himself was following her.
Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.
From the top of the ridge she looked back at the scene – terrified he would be giving chase. Instead, she saw his dark figure tumbling toward the main road. It was a mile to anywhere that way.
Ella ran as fast as she could, splashing across creeks and heaving painful air until she reached her cousin’s house, where she waded into the pond, stripped off her clothes and sank them deep with a heavy stone that’d already been laid out. She washed the smoke smell off and slipped into her night dress then into the back of the house, running up the stairs and slithering into her cousin’s bed. Twelve year old Mary Sue just mumbled incoherently and rolled over.
Ella couldn’t sleep at all. She might have killed Jack, and she didn’t dare tell Uncle Enos that Jack had seen her. He’d told her not to be seen and he could get mighty mean if you didn’t listen to him.
The next day, the Sheriff was out, but he was only interested in Enos and the other menfolk’s whereabouts. She heard enough to know that Jack was in bad shape. Pneumonia, brought on by the smoke, they said. His mom and he were, at least for now, going to be living a few towns over to where the hospital was.
The sheriff poked around, but there just wasn’t anything to find. Uncle Enos had not been surprised to hear Jack was home, only a bit disappointed to hear that he had apparently lived. Ella made a note to never trust Enos completely again.
And life went on. The excited flare up in stories came and went, as did the year, then the next. The feud was almost silent, except for a few back alley beatings – nobody wanted to draw the attention of the sheriff after a near-homicide. Ella had almost managed to suppress her memories as one, then another summer vacation came and went, and another school year started.
As she walked in, she saw a tall muscular boy standing near the doorway to her classroom, other students obviously avoiding him. He was a full head taller than any of the other boys in the hallway and had muscles like knotted cables standing out on his arms. She looked into his face and stopped cold.
She knew who he was.
His gaze locked on her with a touch of cruel humor twinkling behind his eyes. He smiled, in a twisted and laconic, but completely predatory expression.
“Well, Firebug, I ain’t seen you in a coon’s age.”
The way he stretched the word “Firebug” in his clear deep voice chilled her to the bone, despite the August heat. He stood up straight, looming over her.
Sweet Jesus, he was huge, bigger than most full grown men. A commotion behind her, then her brothers, Matt and John, pushed their way between her and Jack.
He didn’t move until her older brother Matt shoved him. He casually swatted Matt to the ground and cuffed John into the other side of the hall with no effort at all.
He brought his lazy attention back to Ella. “Well, Firebug, I’d love to stay and talk. You ‘n I got unfinished business, after all. But I gotta get to class. See you later.”
After helping Matt and John up, Ella barely made it to her desk before collapsing into it, shaking like a leaf. It was Jack. Or maybe it had been Jack, whatever he was now. He’d seemed relaxed and confident like a tiger in a roomful of sheep. No shy, bookish boy anymore, he seemed half monster and half man. The rest of the day was horrible, she couldn’t concentrate and fled the school an hour early to hide in her room.
It didn’t get better after that. He was constantly present and always seemed to be standing wherever she tried to go. He was also unfailingly, mockingly, polite; his cruelly humorous smile was haunting her dreams in just a few days. He always mentioned their “unfinished business” before leaving, and never called her anything but “Firebug.” She learned that he and some friends had built a small cabin where his old house was. Right on the burned foundation. Nobody seemed to know why he had come back alone, all he’d ever say was that he had “unfinished business.” Ella had a horrible feeling she knew what his “unfinished business” was. It didn’t take long for rumors of that to infect the school.
He never touched her, but seemed to take pleasure in beating every male Simms he came across. Her brothers and cousins were soon trying to avoid him. He was just too big, too strong, and he seemed to relish pain. When three of her uncles tried to “have a word with him” in a dark alley to put a stop to it, he’d simply produced a piece of pipe and put all three in the hospital – and warned them that the next time they tried to jump him, he’d put them in the ground.
Her Uncle Clive had named him. He’d rambled incoherently at the hospital about fighting “the Devil himself.”
Jack Amos had become “Devil.”
When Ella heard that, she’d gone outside and thrown up all over the alley, Gramma’s word ringing in her ears.
.... There is more of this story ...